When it comes to food, Hyde Park has long been defined by its isolation from the rest of the city. A restaurant opening in the neighborhood is usually just that—a neighborhood opening. It is admittedly nice to know that the Medici will continue to pulse with student traffic, and that Valois will attract the same colorful crowds every breakfast. The local restaurants are character-preserving, essential to the neighborhood. And maybe it is because of this that the appearance of A10, Matthias Merges’s new high-profile concept, is all the more brave.
A10 is the first of three well-publicized restaurants opening in Hyde Park. (Another Merges restaurant, Yusho Hyde Park, is expected to open only a few blocks away from A10 in 2014.) Flying under the banner of one of the city’s most celebrated chefs, A10 has had a significant amount of success in its first week of business, attracting both interested locals and foodies from across the city. There is little doubt that Merges, with his pork neck and snails, is bringing something exciting to Hyde Park. But does Hyde Park really have a place for A10?
The restaurant comes to us as an outsider, and thus with more to prove. Not only will it need great food, but also need to find a place among both the city’s and Hyde Park’s food worlds. Others have tried—Park 52, for example—but this has proven easier said than done. Fortunately for A10, if its first-week performance is any indicator of future success, I’d say there is a lot to be hopeful about.
Entering the bustling dining room or bar on a Saturday evening is jaw-dropping. At least for now, make a reservation in advance of going, or don’t expect to be seated on a busy evening with no prior warning, as it will be full. The rambunctiousness of A10 is one of its most refreshing qualities—a high-energy exuberance pervades everything in the dining experience. On occasion, the fast-paced environment works against the interests of the diner, as is the case with the service, which suffers from disorganization. On opening night, it took close to half an hour for the staff to inform our table that the wine we had chosen wasn’t even available that day.
Despite any service hiccups, the loud and experimental menu is more than enough to keep the meal going strong. The menu is laden with tropes that help guide the diner’s palate. Each dish plays a similar game, dealing in a fun and colorful display of ingredients that balances the delicate with the bold and unusual. Smoky wood-fired snails are served in cast-iron mini cocottes and covered in a pillow of rosemary olive oil biscuit, the rich textures of boudin noir (blood sausage) are complemented by the bitter, salty taste of pickled tentacle and rich hollandaise, and crisp Brussels sprouts with soft cores are paired with hefty slices of beef tongue.
As must be the case for a restaurant claiming an Italian origin, the menu also deals in some more classic Italian fare, although without skipping a beat in its play on the experimental and light. The smoked eggplant pizza could be more properly described as rich and airy focaccia bread topped with splashes of flavor—some roasted garlic sitting on a wavy bed of burrata and balsamic vinegar. The gnudi—gnocchi filled with ricotta instead of potatoes—was creamy and light, but given more acidic and earthier flavors in the chanterelle mushrooms and spinach. For dessert, the cannoli soft-serve stood out as the most traditional Italian treat. Pistachio and cinnamon sat atop a creamy ice cream mixture and buried a typical cannoli shell to be broken apart at your leisure.
If dinner is designed to be heavy on the experimental and delicate, brunch at A10 is equally so, but with a lens also focused on the decadent. Sweet treats are heavily featured on the menu; the almond croissant covered in honey and the pumpkin brioche with a touch of cinnamon were standouts. The French toast, both decadent and tart, layers red wine–poached pears, and tops itself with melted black pepper–infused marshmallow. For those more interested in something savory, the A10 burger with pork jowl bacon, taleggio cheese, and mustard jam can fill a burger craving, but also veer dangerously close to overdoing the luxuriousness that can appropriately be granted to a cheeseburger.
If there are complaints about the food, they might be attributed to first-week jitters, and the small fixes that are needed will hopefully come in the time it takes to settle in. The cocottes needed more snails, and the boudin noir needed more squid. The Venezuelan bouchon cake was tough, and the pumpkin brioche bun needed to stay warmer for longer. With the service too, don’t expect it to remain so chaotic once people find out where they need to be and what they need to do. But I think what is more telling still is how, despite these little things, the nature of the restaurant still remains charming, disarming, and vibrant.
If A10 has anything going for it (and I’d like to argue it does), it’s that no one else in the neighborhood gets close to what it is trying to do. While the food and service still need some refinement, A10’s overall package provides a unique, uplifting experience in the context of both of the neighborhood’s restaurant scenes. To go sooner rather than later would be doing yourself a favor, because the results of the restaurant will be the same, even without the small changes that are sure to occur. Walking out of the restaurant on opening night, I couldn’t help but notice the life and vibrancy of Hyde Park on a cool fall evening: a nice change of perspective, and one I think the neighborhood is lucky to have.
A10 is located at 1462 East 53rd Street. Average plate costs $15-$20.